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The evolutionary ecology of mitochondrial variation


School of Life Sciences

About the Project

In this multidisciplinary, international project you will address novel and exciting questions about the ecological and evolutionary consequences of mitochondrial variation in wild animals. You will combine ecological fieldwork, fish-keeping and behavioural experiments with cutting-edge bioinformatics and physiological assays to examine differences between three-spined stickleback fish with different mitochondrial genetics. Ecological fieldwork will take place in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, and there will be opportunities for visits to collaborating labs in Germany and Canada.

Mitochondria, the powerhouse of complex life, are present in all cells of eukaryotes. They are unusual because they carry a complement of their own DNA, separate from the nucleus, which is inherited maternally. For many years it has been believed that the substantial variation in mitochondrial DNA between populations is neutral. More recently, in stark contrast, it has been suggested that mitochondrial variation may be fundamentally important for adaptation to environmental change, given that mitochondria contain perhaps the most critically important machinery of complex life, which converts nutrients into available energy. However, we know almost nothing about the functional consequences of mitochondrial variation in wild organisms, or its ecological and evolutionary significance.

Three-spined stickleback, small temperate fish, have repeatedly colonised freshwater from the sea. The contrasting energetic and osmotic demands of marine and freshwater environments exert strong selection on genes involved in oxphos pathways. On the Scottish island of North Uist there are hybrid zones between marine and freshwater stickleback populations that originate from distinct mitochondrial clades that are ~120,000 years diverged. Hybridisation in these contact zones is strongly asymmetric, with freshwater mtDNA introgressing into marine fish, but not vice versa. This is strongly indicative of functional differences between mitochondrial genotypes and suggests that mitonuclear conflict may contribute to speciation in these fish.

The project will be based in the MacColl lab at the University of Nottingham, http://ecology.nottingham.ac.uk/AndrewMacColl/index.php, a friendly, dynamic and well-funded group, embedded in a wider cohesive group of ecologists and evolutionary biologists http://ecology.nottingham.ac.uk/index.html.

References

Barreto, F.S. et al. (2018) Genomic signatures of mitonuclear coevolution across populations of Tigriopus californicus. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2: 1250-7.

Dean, L.L. et al. (2019) Admixture between ancient lineages, selection, and the formation of sympatric stickleback species-pairs, Mol. Biol. Evol., 36:2481–2497.

Greenway et al. (2020) Convergent evolution of conserved mitochondrial pathways underlies repeated adaptation to extreme environments. PNAS, 117: 16424-16430.

Hill, G.E. (2015) Mitonuclear Ecology. Mol. Biol. Evol., 32: 1917-1927.

Lane, N. (2016) The Vital Question. Profile Books.

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